Movie review: High marks for Robert Duvall in 'Get Low'
I don’t know about you, but I’ve often fantasized about attending my own funeral. What will people say? How will they react? Will they weep, or will they, as I prefer to think, laugh? And, yes, how many will even make the effort to attend?
I’ll never know the answers, of course. None of us will. Well, that is unless you’re Felix “Bush” Breazeale, the Tennessee hermit, who, in the grand tradition of putting carts before horses, decided in 1938 to conduct his sendoff before he grew too stiff to enjoy it.
And to be assured of high attendance, he offered up his 3,000 acres of untamed mountain paradise as the grand prize in a lottery in which each ticket was purchased with the stipulation that the buyer recite a eulogy – good, bad or indifferent – for the nearly departed.
Legend has it that hundreds turned out, while Felix made out big with a lottery scheme that produced mucho moolah. And, had he lived another 70 years or so, he would have made out even grander once Hollywood came a callin’, fixin’ to turn his story into an Oscar-contending movie featuring Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Robert Duvall.
Thus, the minor funereal gem, “Get Low,” was born. And I’m here to tell you it’s a casket full of miracles thanks to Duvall, delivering his finest performance since 1997’s “The Apostle,” as Felix, one of the most likable curmudgeons you’ll ever meet.
It’s a part Duvall was born to play. You can tell he knows it, too, through his determination to act the heck out of it. But it’s not in a showy, Daniel Day-Lewis or Al Pacino manner; no, it’s more like a subdued, Meryl Streep style, in which he disappears so deeply into character it never feels like acting.
Even better, is the complexity he brings to an ornery old coot who hates himself more than the ignorant, fearful townsfolk, who greet Felix with the same level of disdain exhibited by the residents of Munchkinland toward the Wicked Witch of the West. You’re in total agreement with them, too. Or, at least you are initially, as Duvall makes Felix and his unkempt beard seem like a menace to backwoods society.
Gradually, though, Duvall begins to peel back the layers, both physically and emotionally, as his hair and disposition tame. And he works overtime promoting the notion that a man loathed and feared by all who cross his path, is really just a big, heartbroken pussycat.
Wow! I didn’t see that coming.
Yes, “Get Low’s” predictability is far more threatening than anything Felix has ever been wrongly accused of, but Duvall makes it work, selling it with remarkable conviction,
But as great as Duvall is, he can’t overcome the fact that the events leading up to the “funeral” are far more poignant and comically endearing than anything that occurs in the film’s listless third act. It’s a huge disappointment, too; because up until that juncture, first-time director Aaron Schneider (an Oscar winner for the short, “Two Soldiers”) is on a roll, perfectly evoking the late 1930s, both in the film’s playful tone and exquisite visuals.
That, not so coincidentally, is when Murray is front and center alongside Duvall, playing the equally juicy role of a money-grubbing mortician dying for Felix’s business at a time when the citizens of Roane County just aren’t dying.
Sure, Murray has played the fast-talking huckster a dozen times before, but somehow you never grow tired of it, especially when the part calls for an actor as subtly deadpan as him. And nobody wears smarmy better than Murray at his best, which is exactly what he is here.
You’re instantly drawn to his undertaker and the undertaking he endeavors in whipping up a funeral sure to tear deep into Felix’s cash-filled pockets. The two acting greats share an engaging rapport, and the sight of them together for the first time is downright exhilarating.
You’d think a young’un like Lucas Black (“Sling Blade”) wouldn’t stand a chance in their supreme company, but you’d be wrong, as he fearlessly goes toe-to-toe with both in the dual role of Murray’s do-gooder apprentice and the story’s lone voice of reason.
It’s the type of part that usually gets dumped on Chris O’Donnell (“Scent of a Woman”) or Brendan Fraser (“Gods and Monsters”), but Black steps it up several notches, consistently surprising you with the level of depth he brings to what amounts to a cookie-cutter role.
Ditto for Spacek, underutilized as the gal Felix loved and lost in his younger years, and never stopped pining for. She’s also a key to the film’s central mystery of why Felix fell into the life of hermit-dom.
Typical of stories like this, the build up to, and the delivering of, the “big secret” is neither surprising nor intriguing. But when you have actors this good and sun-kissed images this beautiful, story and plot don’t seem all that important. No, “Get Low’s” lone mission is to charm, and thanks to Duvall, it does that in spades.
GET LOW (PG-13) Cast includes Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black and Sissy Spacek. Directed by Aaron Schneider. 3 stars out of 4.
Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.